Thursday, July 26, 2007

Base-Hit Style Book Pitching…or, Hit ‘Em Where They Ain’t

People who “speak baseball,” as we do in our house, have a wealth of slang particular to that sport and some terminology that can be—to put it mildly—a little confusing. Case in point: you may see us comment on an infield groundout by calling it what sounds like an “Atom Ball.” This can be fairly alarming…until you realize that what we’re saying is “at ‘em ball.” It refers to a ball that’s smacked pretty well, but right at an infielder; the frustrating result is that the batter has nothing to show for a well-hit ball but a routine ground ball or shallow line-drive out. Which is why another common baseball slang phrase is, “Hit ‘em where they ain’t.” If you smack a ball to the spaces between fielders, you end up with a much better result. “Nice,” you say. “Good idea. But what in confusion does it have to do with writing or pitching a book?” Well, call me dense, but I just realized recently that the answer to that question: a lot. This conclusion didn’t come easily. (Witness my reference to density.) It’s come very recently, after a long time slogging away in the trenches of writing, trying to identify where my writing fits into the marketplace, trying to decide what genre I write, trying to tailor my pitches to the agents and editors who handle my kind of work, etc., etc., etc. For years and years, I’ve believed in the ancient wisdom of the previously published: find a publisher who does your kind of book, and pitch it there. In fact, the narrower you can make this focus, the better: if you can find the editor who bought the last five or six books just like yours out there, and pitch her, that’s even better…and if you find an editor or a house that publishes an author you sound uncannily like, or whom you emulate, that’s like hitting the proverbial pot of gold and rainbow. Go for it, and you’ll be snatched up instantly—or at least have a better chance of getting your foot in the door. Sounds like great advice, right? Too bad it’s not. In fact, those are exactly the people to whom you do not want to send your book. Why not? Let me explain. You love Suzy Potboiler. You gobble up everything she writes. You dream about her characters. You reread her stories until the books are dogeared. And when you grow up as a writer, you want to be as good as she is. Fast forward a few years…and you’ve become a really good storyteller yourself. In fact, people now tell you your work sounds amazingly like S.P. It’s yours, of course—but it’s the same genre, it has a similar tone, you write to a similar word length…in other words, if Suzy ever misses a stride, you want to be the princess in waiting. To give her publisher the hint, you pitch your book there; if she’s prolific, you pitch your work to all her publishers. But no matter how you try, you can’t break in with her publishers, and you can’t get her agent to give you the time of day. Why would that be? They like what Suzy does, right? So shouldn’t they like your stuff just as much? Shouldn’t you be on that gravy train, too? Nope. Because they don’t want another Suzy. They want a Mabel. Or a Dorothy. Or a Colleen. Or a Meg. Not another Suzy. Two Suzys dilute the market. They confuse readers. People want to know what the difference is…or, worse, they forget. And forgetting a trademark, a name, or a label…this is serious in the book business. But a Suzy, and a Mabel, and a Dorothy? These gals write all different sorts of books. For different readers, and different buyers. And the wider swath a publisher can cut across the reader base…the better they like it. So, no, the place to pitch your work isn’t where Suzy pitches and sells hers. It’s at her competition. And this, boys and girls, is “hitting ‘em where they ain’t.” You see, for years, Also-Ran Publisher has been kicking themselves that when Suzy’s stuff came across the transom, they didn’t see it for the genius it was. The editorial assistant who gave it thumbs-down, of course, is no longer working for ARP. But neither is Suzy writing for them, while she’s making gazillions of dollars for Trite and True house down the street, and it bugs ARP every time Suzy hits the bestseller lists. What they’d love to find is another Suzy, but there isn’t another Suzy out there… Or is there? You see where we’re going here, don’t you? Think this week not about pitching where “they’ve already bought books like” yours…but where you haven’t seen books quite like yours yet. Certainly, stay within your genre, or within the range of the broad-brush “type” of book you want to sell. But don’t try to break into a place that does what you love by being more of the same. That’s hitting “at ‘em” balls, and you’ll never get out of the infield. Because they don’t need two of any storyline, any author, or any type of book that’s too much like another one in-house already. If you love Mary Higgins Clark, like I do, in other words…that means that your aim shouldn’t be to end up at Simon and Schuster alongside her. Mine was. For years. It isn’t anymore. Because Simon and Schuster doesn’t need another Mary Higgins Clark. They’ve already got one. It’s taken me all these years to figure this out, but I think I’ve got it now. I think it’ll be just as sweet to be Penguin’s answer to Mary Higgins Clark. Or Random House’s. Or Doubleday’s. Or maybeThomas Nelson’s. Or…a publisher or agent I haven’t even thought of yet, but who’s thinking of me. Who’s sitting there, thinking, “What I’d really love to see is a cross between Mary Higgins Clark and Karen Kingsbury. You know…a little suspense, a lot of emotion...” Note to said publisher or agent: e-mail me. I’ve got a book that’ll knock your socks off. Come to think of it, I’ve got a better idea. I’ll be pitching you shortly. And you’ll be glad I did. Janny

1 comment:

Donna Alice said...

A great concept! I've never actually found anyone writing the same kind of books as I am--so I can't compare myself to most of the children's writers out there. I aim to be different! So maybe I need to find the right agent or publisher who's looking for the next best thing and not the same old, same old. Thanks for the encouragement--I needed it today.